Notable Deaths in 2014: Two Figures of the McCarthy Era

A wraith-like figure from the U.S.’s still-not-entirely forgotten anti-Communist past briefly flickered across the field of American historical perception in mid-October of this year. The revelation of the July death of David Greenglass, brother-in-law of Julius Rosenberg, resulted in nothing like the full-on cultural and political debates over the guilt or innocence of the couple of days gone by, but it did serve as a faint reminder of this particular period of the annals of American repression. The execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in June of 1953, characterized by what historian David Caute, in his The Great Fear, called its “ritual-purgatory nature” was the grisly zenith of this era. Much broader in historical scope than the personalized term “McCarthyism” implies, the anti-Communist period, with its roots in the anti-labor and anti-immigrant episodes of the nineteenth century, was a manifestation of an enduring authoritarian current of class rule in American society.

While McCarthy did not play a direct role in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs (his lieutenant Roy Cohn was heavily involved), a figure more closely associated with Tailgunner Joe also passed away this year. Irving Peress, an army dentist and object of intense interest from McCarthy regarding a promotion the former received, died in November. The Peress case was closely related to McCarthy’s downfall.  Eisenhower’s objection to the Senator’s pursuit of the Army and the Khrushchev thaw both contributed to the winding down of the anti-Communist campaign, although both its cultural traces (among them the John Birch Society) and some legislation of the era still persist today.

For a contemporary piece on Roy Cohn, see “The Gang Lawyer” by Raya Dunayevskaya, published in Correspondence in 1954.

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